Marching On
NEWS:...a different world then.....
By Mobbs
July 20 2017

Back in the day...

Who remembers Harold Macmillan's "You've never had it so good" speech back in the late 1950's? In a superb article Mobbs takes a look at how the world of sport & especially rugby has changed in our town over the years. Was the world a better place in days gone by? You decide & debate please  

You know, I often hear it said that Northampton is a 'rugby town' and I suppose that for most of the professional era that is the case. Saints, after all, have won the European Cup and Premiership, not to mention sundry other trophies along the way. A fine stadium has been built with a superb playing surface that is the envy of most clubs in the top flight. We are struggling to keep in touch with some other clubs at the moment but in the last ten years we have still managed to attract names such as Spencer, Matfield, North and Picamoles to the East Midlands even if those signings have not always been the success we might have envisaged. If you were, say, fifteen years old when Northampton Rugby Football Club beat Munster to lift the European title, then perhaps you cannot really imagine a time when the Saints did not rule the roost in the town but it wasn't always so.


You would have to be over fifty to think back and remember a time when the Sturtridge Pavillion did not exist. A little younger and you might just recall the Gordon Terrace and its tin roof with a rope and a line of trees where the South Stand now dominates the stadium. You might be surprised to learn of the rowing boat that was used to recover balls from the lake after a kick at goal. There may be some who played bowls where the 'village' now stands. Perhaps there are none now left who swam in the Lido which now sits underneath the VIP car park behind the Tetleys Stand. More certain will be those who knew the Salon and its successor discotheques which were an intrinsic part of the social scene of the town from long before the second world war. Yes, it was a different place back then, before the 'lighthouse' was built, when tennis courts were available to those who belonged to the Express Lifts Sports and Social Club. The Bingo Hall started life as a ten-pin bowling alley before becoming a supermarket and only later echoed to 'eyes down for a full house'.


A good house for the Saints at one time would be no more than two or three thousand spectators who might cram the ground for a big local derby against Coventry or Leicester. The annual Mobbs Memorial match between the East Midlands and the Barbarians was a serious midweek afternoon fixture with many schoolboys being given the afternoon off to attend; not quite fair to the girls at Notre Dame or Derngate but once again, different days back then. Saints were a big club in the overall scheme of things, amateur of course, though I have little doubt that unmarked brown envelopes may have appeared in some players shoes by the time they got changed after the game. The Easter tour to Wales and the West Country was a feature for many years and players thought little of playing back to back games with little time for rest and recuperation from either the match or the social aftermath.


I always had the impression that the Saints crowd fifty years ago had a touch of Town and County about its make-up. If you lived in the St James or Duston area you probably went to Franklins Gardens whilst if you came from the other parts of the town you may well have favoured the County Ground. In the main stand there seemed to be a collegiate atmosphere with spectators willing their team on but not really too concerned about the result as long as it had been a good game – yes, some things have most definitely changed ! Big name players, sure, Saints had plenty of them. Dickie Jeeps and Don White, Bob Taylor, Bryan West, Jacko Page, Keith Savage, David Powell, Peter Larter and many was a long list.


If, like me, you went to the NGSB on the Billing Road, you were sucked into a culture of rugby from day one of your first term at the school. I had a British Lion, the late Frank Sykes, as my coach ( not that it did me too much good ) and the role of honour of former pupils who had played for Saints and England was a long one; a tradition that thankfully continues to this day. We even had another England Captain who came to the school for teaching experience in the form to Tony Bucknall who made his name playing for Richmond. I would have loved to have had the honour of playing in the blue and stripes of the first fifteen at school but sadly never got within a million miles of the opportunity due to a complete and utter lack of ability.


I said at the outset that people refer to Northampton as a 'rugby town'. Well, back in the day, it was not like that at all. We are all used to seeing our friends from Sixfields languishing in what we used to call Division Three and Four of the Football League but as most of you will know, it was not always so. For all their long history the Cobblers have spent a grand total of four seasons outside the ground floor and basement of the 'other game'. Three of those four campaigns were however magnificent in terms of triumph and achievement whilst the fourth is best left to be one of calamity. The story of the climb and fall is well known and does not need repeating here other than to say that the attendance figures at the County Ground dwarfed those seen at Franklins Gardens. I remember a survey in the late lamented 'Charles Buchans Football Monthly' magazine which showed that the Cobblers had one of the very best ratios of attendance to population in the football league. Five figure gates were commonplace and of course, during the quasi-tragic season 1965-66, the highest crowds of all were seen culminating in twenty-four thousand for the relegation decider against Fulham. As an aside, if you believe all those who say they watched George Best score six goals at the County Ground in the fifth round of the FA Cup, then the crowd for that game has to be fifty thousand plus !


Before leaving the brief sojourn in which I refer to the Cobblers, I will leave you with this quick teaser. What, apart from the blindingly obvious do the following names have in common: Banks, Cohen, Wilson, Stiles, J Charlton, Moore, Ball, Hunt, Hurst, R Charlton and Peters ?


Well, they all played at the County Ground against the Cobblers in the months preceding the golden July day in which England won the World Cup against West Germany. You can actually go a little further on this one in saying that eight of the eleven remaining members of Alf Ramsey's squad also came and played at Abington Avenue that season, the only exceptions being Terry Paine and Ron Flowers who were playing for teams in Division Two at the time whilst the great Jimmy Greaves was injured when Tottenham came to call...............different days indeed.

Before we return to matters regarding rugby, it would be incorrect not to remember that our town, indeed our County, has another team playing 'the summer game'. Back in the day, a more than half decent team playing in a ramshackle ground but one nonetheless challenging for the holy grail of the County Championship.


By common consent, the County had the best wicket-keeper in the country in the form of their captain Keith Andrew; just a shame he could not bat to save his life. We had a big dangerous England fast bowler in the injury prone David Larter. Add to this mix a classy opener in Roger Prideaux, a sergeant-major in Brian Reynolds, a bespectacled David Steele years before his glory with England against Thompson and Lillee but we also had a potential superstar in the late lamented Colin Milburn.


Milburn was in his day the figure equivalent to Botham, Flintoff or Stokes. A roly poly cricketer from Durham, he batted as a Cavalier, was a more than useful part-time bowler and fielded like a dream as long as no running was involved. When his Captain, a little worried by Milburns weight, suggested in the bar one night that he should cut down on the pints, the reply came straight back 'two halves then please skipper..'


Back to back victories against the West Indians in 1966 and 1969 with a win over the Australians thrown in....yes, we had a decent cricket team back in the day albeit one still chasing that Championship flag despite success in limited over and latterly 20/20

pyjama cricket !


Thinking about it, our three teams in what was once a small town and now is perhaps a city in all but name, have always been to an extent under-achievers. Saints have eclipsed their local rivals in winning two very significant prizes since the turn of the century and now must be regarded as the senior team in Northampton/Shire sport. We cannot match the spending power of some other clubs and as such will ultimately fall short more often than not though as Exeter Chiefs and indeed Leicester City have demonstrated, nothing is impossible even at the highest level.


Another season beckons, new players, old faces, high hopes, big dreams all of which will be looked back in twenty years time as a 'different world back then '…......